How to Improve Walking Speed in Seniors

The Critical Points

  1. How fast someone walks is predictive of their overall health and life expectancy.
  2. Improved walking speed is correlated with improved 8 year survival rates.
  3. Task-specific exercises as well as overall strength, balance, and posture improvements can increase walking speed.

Senior walking ability begins to decline past 65. It becomes less coordinated, stable, quick, and efficient. This puts pressure on medical, therapeutic, and general staff. Independence and quality of life is lost.

Reasons for the Decline

  • Posture becomes more difficult to maintain
  • Hips and legs become weaker
  • Loss of flexibility
  • Vision and hearing loss
  • Spinal degeneration
  • Longer reaction time
  • Some medications can cause dizziness
  • Light-headedness from low blood pressure

The Structural Loss

Sarcopenia, or loss of muscle mass, begins to set in after age 65. This means that muscles become weaker and elders begin to struggle to do the same tasks. Older adults often begin to notice that they can’t get to where they used to, quite so fast. They start to recognize a loss of speed and general decline in their walking abilities.

When the muscles in the legs and core begin to weaken...

  • How long someone can comfortably stand is reduced.
  • Walking becomes more difficult.
  • Loss of balance and falling becomes more likely.

When older adults lose their joint flexibility...

  • Arm and leg movement becomes less coordinated.
  • The length of each step is altered.
  • The gait can change leading to instability.
  • The ability to lift a foot to step forward, or extend a leg behind, is more difficult.

Prevention IS possible.

“We don’t stop walking because we grow old, we grow old because we stop walking.”

The 2 Ways to Improve Walking Speed in Elders

Strengthening of Body Structures

To combat these debilitating physical changes, staff can focus on the structural changes in the older adult body, known and expected to happen. Elders should be encouraged to beat walking decline before it sets in, but it can still be masterfully fought once symptoms have already begun to show.

Strength training reduces or eliminates muscle mass loss, depending on level of training and commitment.

Systematic reviews and meta analyses over the past decade, have found that interventions with exercise can both improve measures of physical function and walking speed, even in very frail older adults. Other reviews of research in healthy seniors concluded that resistance training specific to leg muscles was the most effective way to increase gait speed.

Main Structural Targets

  • Strengthening leg muscles: improves the muscles used for walking
  • Stretching: improves joint flexibility
  • Overall fitness: increases cardiopulmonary efficiency to transport oxygen to muscles

Train the Brain to Walk Better

Get your living center community up and actually walking. Practicing walking restores residual brain patterns that are used to engage those nerves, joints, and muscles used in walking. This means it can meet the demands of the body by walking in a more precise way.

As walking practice also increases cardiopulmonary fitness it then decreases the level of breathlessness during activity. This means there is a more productive delivery of oxygen to muscles. All improvements in walking ability happen when their brain, nerves, joints, and muscles can respond more efficiently to decrease the demands on the body when walking.

Research has shown us two things. One, when seniors walk and it uses a lot of energy, they do it less often. And two, that skilled walkers are more likely to walk more, experience less difficulty with moving in general, and have a more efficient walking gait.

Other research that looked at seniors who had mild to moderate walking problems, found that interventions that focused on walking exercises along with strength training, yielded greater improvements. Their walking speed was faster than those seniors that targeted the structural components (strengthening and flexibility), alone.

Motivated seniors that practice walking will improve their overall walking efficiency by...

  • Increasing their skill
  • Reducing the amount of energy used in walking
  • Decreasing reaction time to respond to the environment while walking

Walking exercises for senior living centers should be made gradually more challenging to help seniors become more skillful. This allows them to develop their abilities to make easier adjustments to walking patterns and use less effort at the same time.

Ways to Increase Walking Challenges:

  • Increase speed for short distances
  • Change walking directions, sideways, backwards, as well as forward stepping
  • Practice while holding items
  • Increase coordination by walking to the beat of music
  • Improve agility with walking in circular patterns both directions
  • Place small objects on the floor to step over

“The things I used to trip on, I walk over now.”

Together is Better

Using the combined approach to increase walking speed and ability offers the most powerful solution. It expands enjoyment of life and reduces stress on staff. Structural strength training together with practising walking will ensure the highest returns on everyone’s effort.

The specialized HUR equipment that focuses on core muscle groups and lower body muscle groups, is the ideal machinery for active healthy older adults, as well as the very frail. Because they use pneumatic resistance, follow the natural movement of the muscle, and have a zero starting load weight, they are gentle and non-intimidating even for the most reluctant user. Older adults can see even modest gains with .25 pound weight increments and feel a sense of motivation to continue on as they see themselves improve.

When they strengthen their muscles used for walking, balance, and posture, they’ll become more confident. Walking itself will seem less challenging and fear of falling will be reduced. This makes everyone’s life better!

“Always walk through life as if you have something to learn, and you will.”

-Vernon Howard

Learn more about HUR's strength training solutions